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Subject Vs Content In Stock Photography

One question I get over and over from photographers is ‘what subjects sell best?’

Mostly it’s photographers thinking about getting into stock photography and wanting to know what subjects they can go out to shoot to make the most sales, but other times it’s pros looking for some magic bullet or easy shortcut.

Either way it shows a fundamental lack of understanding of stock photography and the difference between Photo Subject and Photo Content.

Your Subject is basically whatever you happen to point the camera at to capture a photo.

Your Content is the way you combine the physical elements, the intangible elements and your photographic skills/techniques, to create an image.

So 100 random photographers could point their cameras at the same Subject and chances are you’d end up with 100 photos with very different Content. Of those 100 photos, my guess is only about 10% would have real sales potential. They might all be great photos, but in a commercial context, content rules.

The amateur takes a photo of the subject.

The professional uses the visible elements to create an image that conveys a message.

It’s not the Subject that makes the sale, but the Content.

It’s not What you shoot that determines your sales potential, but How you shoot it.

Once you get clear on that — once you really get it — you get a whole new perspective on things and virtually anything you look at has real stock potential.

All you have to do is start at the other end and think about the possible end-users; what they will need the image to be and do, and suddenly even the most mundane subject can have ‘stock’ potential.

For most photographers making this step up requires a total reversal of their photographic process though.

Most photographers tend to approach a photo opportunity looking for some supposedly perfect or ideal photo, according to what they’ve learned from the camera clubs, photography magazines and critique websites.

There is a lot to be said for peer-feedback on your work, but all too often the comments in these forums suggest the ‘right’ or ‘correct’ photo could have been achieved “if only the photographer had just done it this way…. ”

Unfortunately in a commercial situation that severely limits your options.

While you’ll see some excellent images in any of these forums, chances are they aren’t going to be all that commercial.

The best example I can think of is the extreme flower macro.

These turn up in all the photography magazines and on all the critique sites. Closer to home I see a lot of them in the Membership Applications that come through… at least half of those we look at have at least one flower macro!

So it’s no surprise that when the average photographer is faced with a flower, they will automatically reach for the macro lens… because that’s the ‘best’ shot they can think of.

The funny thing is, I don’t recall ever seeing a macro flower shot published… except in the photography magazines.

When I think published flower photos I think of the soft-focus single bloom shot for gift cards, the mass of blooms used on seed packets and plant labels, the specimen shot used for text books, the detail shot (not macro) that turns up in gardening magazines… and so on.

Getting past this concept of the one perfect image can be quite simple. All it takes is a slight shift in mindset.

Instead of approaching each photo opportunity with your photographer mindset (What photo do I want to get here?) train yourself to look at it from a buyer’s perspective (What are my Clients going to need from this image?)

Before you even look through the viewfinder, stop and think about what buyer-types might be interested in the subject matter, and what each of those buyer-types will need in terms of content.

As a result you’ll usually come up with multiple buyers types and some very specific information on the type of content they might need.

Then you can go to work and use your skills to create images with the kind of content that sells over and over. Try it next time you’re out!

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